The non-negotiables of the faith, including gender distinctions?

Adrian Warnock has been reporting on the Desiring God 2006 conference, entitled “Above All Earthly Powers: The Supremacy of Christ in a Postmodern World”.

Now let me first say that I have a lot of respect for the ministry of Desiring God and its leader John Piper. They are doing a great work by emphasising the importance for Christians of desiring God and seeking “a passion for the supremacy of God in all things”. I also greatly appreciate Piper’s support for exercise of the gifts of the Spirit in a properly balanced way.

But Piper is not as careful as he should be at distinguishing between biblical standards and the cultural norms of conservative America. I am not the only one to suggest this. For example, Suzanne McCarthy has referred to a list of roles which Piper considers as suitable for women. I commented as follows on her posting:

Are these rules supposed to be Christian and derived from the Bible? It sounds to me as if they come from a 19th century manual of etiquette. That doesn’t make them necessarily wrong, but nor does it make them right. Piper, Grudem and friends need to distinguish between Christian values and old-fashioned conservative cultural ones. A good course in cross-cultural evangelism, or some in depth first hand experience of a very different culture, would do them a world of good.

and also:

I just read the first half sentence of Piper’s book, and I think this gives the real key to his thinking. That first half sentence is “When I was a boy growing up in Greenville, South Carolina“. It was in that conservative environment, around 50 years ago (according to Wikipedia he was born in 1946, actually in Tennessee), that his cultural values were formed. In the second paragraph we learn that they attended a Southern Baptist church, and that of course further explains the formation of his cultural values. He goes on to describe supposed differences between men and women which he claims “go to the root of our personhood“, but which it seems to me are at least very largely conditioned by the specific cultural and religious context in which Piper grew up. …To summarise, Piper is making the mistake which I am afraid is so common among Americans, especially conservative ones but not only Christians, of simply assuming that their own cultural values are objectively and absolutely right, … There is a woeful failure to understand the distinction between cultural norms and absolute morality.

So, I was really interested to see that Desiring God was taking on the issue of relating to a postmodern world whose cultural norms are very different from those of the conservative South in which Piper grew up.

And what do I find? I am basing this mainly on Adrian’s rather brief summaries of others’ reports, but these are the points which some have considered significant. I have also looked at some of Tim Challies‘ more detailed first hand reports.

The controversial preacher Mark Driscoll spoke about: (as summarised by Adrian, condensing a report by Ricky Alcantar):

Nine issues to contend for:

1) The Bible.

2) The sovereignty of God.

3) The virgin birth of Jesus Christ.

4) We must argue against pelagianism, a denial of original sin.

5) We must contend for penal substitutionary atonement.

6) The exclusivity of Jesus.

7) We must contend for male and female roles.

8) We must contend for hell.

9) We must contend that kingdom is priority over culture.

John Piper, in comments on Driscoll’s talk, spoke as follows about these nine issues (as reported by Josh Harris and quoted by Adrian):

He referenced a point Driscoll had made in his talk about the importance of holding certain unchanging truths in our left hand that are the non-negotiables of the faith while being willing to contextualize and differ on secondary issues and stylistically (these are “right hand” issues).

In principle Piper is making an excellent point here on relating to postmodern culture. But I find it very interesting that what Piper affirms as “the non-negotiables of the faith” are apparently these particular nine points listed originally by Driscoll. Most of these nine points I can accept as important and non-negotiable (although I would want to ask for clarification about point 4, and I would argue that penal substitutionary atonement is only one among several good biblical models of the atonement). But this list is revealing both for what it includes and for what it omits.

For example, it omits any mention of several things which are clearly taught and commanded in the New Testament as norms for all believers, such as baptism and the Lord’s Supper. I refer not to the details of how these are to be administered and what they mean, but their very existence. If such things are not listed as non-negotiables, does that imply that they are secondary issues on which we can differ and which we can abandon for the sake of “contextualisation”, in other words in order to make our Christian faith more palatable to, for example, a postmodern generation? Or are they simply additional non-negotiables, thus implying that this list nine points is to be consider as incomplete?

But my main point here is the inclusion in this list of one item, “7) We must contend for male and female roles”, which seems to me totally out of place here. Tim Challies‘ version of this is “6) We must contend for gender distinctions”, but he actually lists this before “7) We must contend for the exclusivity of Christ”, as if gender roles more important than the exclusivity of Christ! Well, what exactly are the “male and female roles” or “gender distinctions” which we must contend for? Ricky Alcantar’s report says a little more here:

7) We must contend for male and female roleswe’re different. Male elders are to govern. We do not endorse homosexuality.

If Driscoll and Piper’s main point is that Christians should oppose homosexual practice and same-sex “marriage”, I would not disagree with them. But I would wonder why opposing these is listed as a “non-negotiable of the faith” when there is no mention of opposition to any other sins, such as heterosexual sex outside marriage, or greed, or pride. Why is homosexuality considered to be a much worse sin than these others? Is there really a biblical basis for this, or is this a case where (despite “non-negotiable” 9) cultural values are being put before kingdom values?

But it seems that what Driscoll and Piper largely have in mind is gender distinctions in the church, that “Male elders are to govern.” Now it is well known to regular readers here and at Better Bibles Blog that I differ from Piper, and implicitly also from Driscoll, on such issues and on the principles of interpretation of Bible passages which are alleged to teach this. I won’t repeat those arguments here, but will restrict my comments to wondering why they make such a big thing out of this. After all, there are in fact only a very few passages in the New Testament which teach about such gender roles. There is probably more teaching which favours slavery, but I don’t see “We must contend for slavery” among the non-negotiables! It might well have been on similar lists in the early 19th century, but anyone looking at such a list today would recognise how dependent it was on cultural norms which have now been abandoned.

There are many issues which are given far more prominence in the Bible than gender roles but have been omitted from this list of non-negotiables. For example, Paul devotes two long chapters of 1 Corinthians to spiritual gifts, and commands elsewhere

Do not put out the Spirit’s fire. 20 Do not treat prophecies with contempt 21 but test them all; hold on to what is good, 22 reject whatever is harmful.

(1 Thessalonians 5:19-22, TNIV)

But Driscoll and Piper do not list acceptance of spiritual gifts including prophecy as a non-negotiable. Why not? Piper accepts these gifts himself, but maybe he is afraid of upsetting a large part of his audience, cessationists who disagree on this, by stressing their importance. But he doesn’t seem afraid of upsetting those who reject his approach to gender issues. Or is it because he accepts that cessationist arguments are strong enough that this should be considered a legitimate area for disagreement among Christians? Well, the cessationist arguments, largely an indefensible interpretation of 1 Corinthians 13:10, seem to me much weaker than the arguments for alternative interpretations of passages on gender roles in the church. So why can’t Piper and friends accept that here too there is a legitimate area for disagreement among Christians?

It seems to me that Driscoll and Piper are picking and choosing among biblical commands, and not to find issues which really are central to the Christian faith and should really be considered non-negotiable. Instead they have selected a list of points which fit with their personal presuppositions about what is central to the faith, based on their culture as much as on the Bible. Their approach on such matters seems to be similar to that of the scribes and Pharisees of Mark 7, who no doubt justified their teachings from Scripture, but of whom Jesus said:

You have let go of the commands of God and are holding on to human traditions.

(Mark 7:8, TNIV)

So, what should we do? I nearly finished this post here, but decided that this was too negative. I would challenge Driscoll and Piper (if they would listen to me!), and others who might agree with them, to go back to the drawing board and reexamine what really are the central non-negotiables of the Christian faith, the points which are not culturally relative and which are also central to the Good News of Christ. And these are the things which I would recommend them to concentrate on in their preaching to a postmodern generation. Then there will be other things which they will also hold as non-negotiable in principle but in practice might allow to take a less prominent position; here I might include baptism, the Lord’s Supper, spiritual gifts, and (from Driscoll’s original list) the virgin birth and hell. Finally, I would remind them to base their contextualisation on Paul’s biblical model:

Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. 20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.

(1 Corinthians 9:19-23, TNIV)

0 thoughts on “The non-negotiables of the faith, including gender distinctions?

  1. I need to ask, because it will tell me alot about the framework of your response: is there a place your theology for the inescapable wrath of God for unbelievers?

  2. Yes, Jesse, there is. Well, it is not inescapable if they repent and are saved, but if they don’t, that it their fate. Now exactly what that “wrath” means, I’m not entirely sure. It is only approximately like human anger. But it does at least mean that these people will be eternally cut off from the presence of God and all the blessings which that brings to those who die as believers.

  3. Dave Warnock, no relation to Adrian, has written a great post about the same list of non-negotiables. He also gave more thought than I did to what actually should be in the list, as well as what shouldn’t.

    Henry Neufeld has also posted and linked to this post, focussing on the danger that calling non-essentials “non-negotiable” endangers Christian unity.

    Thank you, Dave and Henry.

  4. I’m not sure Driscoll intends it to be exhaustive, just several issues that he thinks are threatened in our time that he thinks are biblical views that are worth defending. I do worry about his putting the gender issue on the level of some of these others, but I wonder if he means just that it’s an issue that complementarians should be willing to argue for in all contexts and not that he thinks it’s not an issue of whether people might agree to disagree in order to get along.

  5. Maybe, Jeremy. If he is saying he wants to debate his position with egalitarian Christians as well as with non-believers, I have no problem with that. Anyway, it wasn’t Driscoll who called these “non-negotiables”, but Piper. And that is the description I really object to. The implication of that is surely that he is not prepared to agree to differ from other Christians who have different ideas on these matters, that he wants to put them beyond the pale and so create a division among believers over what to me is a secondary issue.

  6. It may be strange coming from a Southern Baptist, but when you talk about Christian fundamentals or non-negotiables, my first thought is the early creeds.

    Driscoll’s list seems focused on interacting with postmoderns, which makes sense given the forum in which he was speaking. But even as selection of witnessing points, number seven’s gender roles sticks out. That is an issue of right practice rather than right belief, a membership issue which the collective membership of Christianity doesn’t even agree on. Do we really want to put it front and center?

    I also have a problem with number four, original sin. I think maybe Driscoll misspoke here, because it’s not original sin that’s the problem, it’s the very notion of sin and an accountability to God that is such a barrier to evangelization today.

    Among many clues as to fundamentals for the faith, here ‘s one from the current SBC Explore the Bible Sunday School lesson:

    Therefore, leaving the elementary message about the Messiah, let us go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, faith in God, teaching about ritual washings, laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. Heb 6:1-2 HCSB

  7. THIS was an EXCELLENT post. I, too, greatly respect Piper, yet sharply divide with him on his gender role conclusions. Your post was articulate and respectful, while presenting an argument that should not be ignored.

  8. I just found this post through another blog. What I find interesting about this whole debate is that these lists are all man-made. But Jesus listed two non-negotiables: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. Neither of those is listed in either Piper or Driscoll’s tenets. I’m don’t answer to men, I answer to God. While that may sound arrogant, I think we spend far too much time trying to read the hearts and minds of others when God fairly clearly told us that it’s none of our business; He would take care of it (Matt. 7:3-5)

  9. Thank you, Abhantiarna. Indeed, these are two non-negotiables which should be listed. Whether they are the only ones, I don’t want to commit myself. But I agree that it is none of our business to judge others’ hearts and minds.

  10. Peter, I think your basic point is right. I would make two points.

    First, our ability to rightly identify the bare essentials needed to be considered Christian is highly suspect. Not that we can’t get close or shouldn’t make an attempt but we should do so with no less compassion and love than Christ showed and maybe even more humility. Chances are none of us are exactly right and exactitude is exactly what is needed if you want to call it non-negotiable.

    Having said that, my second point is that it should be enough to simply label some issues as “critically important” without going so far as to say they are non-negotiable. Wouldn’t that be enough? I respect someone’s conviction that the gender role is terribly important (most likely because of the hermeneutical implications) but to suggest that someone else might not be a follower of Christ over that issue seems completely implausible. Is someone who believes women can/should preach simply not elect? Even if they are ultimately wrong about the issue are they not saved by God’s grace and mercy? If it is non-negotiable that makes them non-Christian and no non-Christians will be excluded from God’s wrath, correct? Seems highly problematic to me though I’m sure that is exactly what some believe.

    Enough said.

  11. I attended Piper’s conference and must say we are spinning our wheels by trying to debate a list that I feel neither Driscoll nor Piper would consider an exhaustive list of doctrinal distinctives to which we must adhere.

    Piper’s affirmation of Driscoll was not full endorsement of the exact list, but I believe more of a statement that we must adhere to the non-negotiables of Christian faith. Piper’s list would undoubtedly be longer and/or different.

    Certainly someone from an egalitarian view would consider point seven unnecessary; however, if they were making a list of important doctrinal views, I believe they would include an egalitarian view regarding the roles of men and women. Would it not make sense that a complimentarian would do the same?

    I certainly think that a grace filled discussion on these issues of doctrine are important, but feel it is a little crazy to spend so much time picking on a list of distinctives that are being taken somewhat out of context.

  12. Thank you, Scott “Scooterpastor”. You may be right that we are taking this somewhat out of context. But it was Piper, not Driscoll, who chose to call these things “the non-negotiables of the faith”. Maybe if he had chosen the list it would have been somewhat different, and that the list was never intended to be exhaustive, but the fact seems to be that he endorsed this particular list.

    But on one thing you are quite wrong. I can’t speak for other egalitarians, but to speak for myself, my egalitarian position is CERTAINLY NOT an issue which I would list as a non-negotiable. I hold this position for myself and defend it. But I accept that complementarians are my brothers and sisters in Christ and that they have not compromised the essentials of the Christian faith – except perhaps in so far as some of them have allowed their complementarian position to distort their view of the Trinity. What really upsets me about many complementarians is their refusal to accept that egalitarianism is a valid alternative position and accept without reservation that we egalitarians are true Christians.

    Piper’s list of non-negotiables might be similar to but longer than Driscoll’s, but mine would be shorter and very different.

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